Beirut’s historical buildings under threat following State Shura Council decision

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A new high-rise building is being built on the historic Pasteur Street in Beirut's Gemmayze neighborhood. Al-Akhbar/Marwan Tahtah

By: Hadeel Farfour

Published Friday, December 19, 2014

On December 4, 2014, the State Shura Council issued a decision authorizing the demolition of a historical building in the Gemmayze neighborhood in order to protect private property rights. The Council accepted the appeal submitted by the building’s owner against the Ministry of Culture which opposed the demolition, arguing that the decision to prevent the plaintiff from demolishing the building is “inappropriate” and should be revoked “irrespective of the attributes or significance of the structure.”

A lot of signs in the Gemmayze neighborhood point to the historical nature of the area. The neighborhood has been somewhat resilient in the face of the concrete takeover of the city. However, the tsunami of real estate developments will show no mercy and will not spare the neighborhood.

After construction of the Gemmayze Village project began on Pasteur Street, some owners of historical buildings in the area wanted to invest in their property. As a result, some buildings are in the process of being torn down, including a historical building in Mdawar, built in the 1920s.

Property No. 651 is divided into two sections. The western side is not classified as historical, therefore, it is allowed to be demolished. The eastern side is classified as historical and so on November 4, 2013 the Ministry of Culture issued a decision preventing its demolition.

On December 20, 2013, the building’s owner, Mohammed Rashad Atweh, appealed the decision to the State Shura Council. On December 4, 2014, almost a year later, the Council issued a decision in which it accepted the appeal, arguing that the decision preventing the plaintiff (the owner) from tearing down the building on his property is flawed and should be revoked.

The Shura Council’s decision is based on the principle of “protecting property rights,” indicating that “the constitution prohibits the expropriation of property.” Therefore, “on the basis of the definition of property rights contained in some legal texts (based on Articles 11, 12 and 13 of the Real Property Law in addition to Article 15 of the constitution), prohibiting the owner from demolishing the structure on his property limits his property rights unless it is based on a legislative text permitting that (the prohibition).” Furthermore, the decision is based on the fact that the building was removed from a list of buildings whose demolition has been frozen based on a previous cabinet decision. Environmental activist Raja Njeim said that “had the building been part of the aforementioned list, there would not have been a need for the Ministry of Culture to survey and classify it in order to protect it.”

What about the list of buildings whose demolition has been frozen?

On February 5, 1998, the cabinet instructed the Council for Development and Reconstruction to prepare a comprehensive study of the buildings whose demolition has been frozen and to lift restrictions on buildings that do not have a historical architectural character. Some buildings were classified in categories A, B and C which consist of structures that have a historical character. The study, however, deemed buildings classified in categories D and E as not having a historical character and therefore not protected.

Njeim insists: “There are many buildings listed in the non-protected categories that are in fact historical in character,” adding: “this building in particular has features that require listing it in categories that are protected.” He points out that there are a lot of legal problems with the reclassification study, stressing that “over the previous years, the cabinet intentionally ignored this issue.”

The Ministry of Culture says the list does not include all areas in Beirut, pointing out its inaccuracy and arguing that “the absence of a decision by the state through its successive governments and the high price of real estate in Beirut have exacerbated the problem taking it to new dangerous heights.” The ministry points out that they “lack the laws that allow them to preserve Beirut’s architectural heritage while protecting private property at the same time.”

Therein lies the problem with the decision of the State Shura Council. How can the justice system be insistent on and committed to legislative texts while ignoring its responsibility to protect the public good, which should outweigh individual interests and private property rights? The State Shura Council’s decision undermines the foundation of justice upon which the justice system is based. Instead of protecting historical buildings in their capacity as a conduit to our collective memory (i.e. public property), the justice system rushed to protect private property rights in a dubious manner, asserting that they supersede other rights.

What about other historical buildings in Beirut? In the Rmeil neighborhood in Gemmayze for instance, “a new building is 120 years old,” says the mayor, Bechara Ghulam. Are they all on the list? Who can guarantee that their owners will not resort to the State Shura Council to authorize their demolition? Ghulam does not hide his concern for these historical buildings which he is proud of. He says: “There are buildings that used to host kings and presidents who came to take pictures in front of them.” He cannot believe that they could be torn down. For him, they are “monuments and history.” Perhaps the mayor should reconsider his belief that history and monuments matter. The conclusion of the text of the Shura Council’s decision is proof of the danger besetting these buildings, as it authorizes tearing down the building “irrespective of the attributes or significance of the structure under question.” As though this central point is of no concern to the Council whatsoever.

Property located in historical neighborhoods is subject to Environmental Law 444. The building in question boasts many distinctive features that require the Ministry of Environment to conduct an initial environmental test before taking an irreversible decision. “So Beirut Governor Ziad Chebib has no right to approve the demolition before referring the case to the Ministry of Environment, even if there is a decision from the State Shura Council,” says Njeim. He points out that Chebib bears responsibility even though he issued a decision on December 12, 2014 to stop the work taking place in the easter section of property No. 651 Mdawar and instructed whoever is in charge to halt all the work being done without a permit in the eastern section of the property while tightening supervision. Njeim adds: “Even the permit for the western section should be vetted by the Ministry of Environment,” pointing to the responsibility of the Ministry of Culture which could’ve requested a retrial but chose not to.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

Comments

It is a shame that there are not plans to cordon off whole areas for upgrade & restoration instead of demolition.
We have had the same problem here in Victoria over so many years. St Kilda Road from the city to the old St Kilda junction was lined with mansions, beautiful old buildings. One by one they became tall towers, 4 very tall walls that housed a hotchpotch of establishments & services & empty floors, floors that were never leased due to a glut of office space.
Today some of those tall towers are not functional & need to be demolished. In their rush they built cheap & nasty, without thought for tomorrows needs.
We managed to save the Regent Theater in Collins Street but today they can build 100 storied on a site as small as a postage stamp sandwiched between a rock & a hard place & they do.
The bigger shame is that the buildings that are going up many never be fully leased or occupied. The population of the world is decreasing, self awareness, the passing of traditional norms & cost, a lack of sufficient funds to raise children appropriately, has cause a rethink of quality of life issues, many couples do not want children.
So ... who are they building for ?

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